Leading from the Left

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Signs of Change

I spent this past weekend in Asheville. There's never a bad time of year to be in Asheville, but summer is particularly nice because it's often about 10 degrees cooler and slightly less humid up the mountain. This trip, like previous visits, was a delight.

The reason for the trip--as if I really needed an excuse to refugee out of the Piedmont in August--was to attend a fundraiser for EqualityNC. Equality is North Carolina's only state-wide political organization working for civil rights for lesbians, gay men, bi-sexuals and trans-gendered individuals (LGBT). I helped found the organization back in 1991, served as the first staff person, and am now chair of the Board of Directors.

As I've reflected the past couple of days on Saturday's fundraiser, I can't help but note how much things have changed for the gay community--and how little.

Saturday's event, by any measure, was a whopping success. Equality raised $15,000 with well over 100 guests and an assortment of local and state elected officials.

The biggest sign of how far we've come towards acceptance of the gay community was the presence of 3 candidates for Lt. Governor: Dan Besse, Winston-Salem City Councilmember and one of the events sponsors; Hampton Dellinger, an Orange County boy who's sponsored an Equality event in the past, and--perhaps most surprisingly--State Senator Walter Dalton of Rutherfordton. Dalton is a moderate to conservative Senator who has never had much of a relationship with the LGBT community. His attendance is a clear sign that the state has moved far enough along on LGBT issues that mainstream politicians are no longer scared to be seen with us.

You know, 4 years ago we couldn't have gotten that many state-wide candidates to attend an gay political event. It would have been like pulling teeth to get them there.

There are lots of reasons for this sea-change of course. First, since the Massachussetts marriage decision the country as a whole, including North Carolina, has been having thorough conversation about gay rights and the LGBT community's place in our country. Though difficult at times for those of us who are gay and had to listen to the venomous rhetoric spewed from the right, that conversation has been good for the country and North Carolina.

The second development was closer to home and was mainly felt by North Carolina's Democratic Party establishment....the election of Julia Boseman to the NC State Senate from New Hanover County. Julie, an out Lesbian and a Democrat, got elected in 2004 in a Republican-leaning, conservative district. It is a district that is nearly impossible for a Democrat to win much less an openly Lesbian Democrat. Few people in the party establishment thought she could win at first. She proved them wrong. And in doing so, the establishment recognized--for the first time--that the electorate might not be as anti-gay as they thought.

Julia's election to the State Senate helped open doors and change minds; the effects of her election have been felt far beyond the boundaries of her district, which speaks to the need to have more openly gay/lesbian elected officials. It does, indeed, make a difference to have minority groups seated at the table.

Senator Boseman's election hasn't changed everything, though. It's still hard to get pro-gay legislation through the NC General Assembly. Just last week, for example, a bill that would have prohibited bullying in schools was blocked in the State Senate. This bill was blocked for one reason and one reason only. It included the category "sexual orientation" as one of the groups against which bullying would not be tolerated. The far right went ballistic and raised a holy-stink about the bill, managing to get it stopped in its tracks even after passing the State House by a strong majority.

So as I was driving back down the mountain, heading home to the thick heat of the Piedmont on August, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we've come but yet how little difference it's made yet. For those of you who are straight, you may not quite comprehend why it's a big deal for Equality to have 3 Lt. Governor candidates at one of our events. But, trust me, it is. But even with an openly lesbian member of the State Senate and a number of strong pro-gay allies, we still couldn't get a little bill passed that would have helped prevent school children from being bullied.

Creating change means adding one building block at a time, adding pieces to the jig saw puzzle one-by-one until the picture comes into focus. The work that Equality NC has done over the last 16 years has helped create a different North Carolina, but it's still a long road home. Sometimes the last mile is the longest.